June 13 2024

Jihad, the Western Media, and Muslims

Asma Afsaruddin, Indiana University, Bloomington

still from Rambo III. Sylvester Stallone in a black tank top leads a group of Afghan soldiers through a dusty landscape

Photo: A still from the film Rambo III (1988), where Rambo assists Afghan rebels fighting off Soviets.

Jihad is more often than not translated as “holy war” in the Western media. This translation immediately conveys the impression that jihad by definition is war waged for religious reasons, particularly to forcefully replace all other religions with Islam. The term also conveys the impression that it is a fundamental religious duty imposed on all Muslims till the end of time, or at least until they have brought about the conversion of all non-Muslims—whichever comes first! A few news outlets and journalists exercise greater responsibility: they take care to translate jihad as “struggle” or “effort” and occasionally mention the different ways in which this human struggle is carried out during one’s earthly existence.

One should be aware of the specific political and historical circumstances that determine whether the military jihad receives a favorable spin in the Western media or not. Between 1979 and 1989 under a program known as Operation Cyclone, the United States government actively supported the group known as the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan who were fighting against the Soviet occupation forces there. “Those who carry out jihad” (this is what Mujahedeen means in Arabic) were portrayed favorably in the American and European press at that time because they were assumed to be fighting on the right side—that is to say, against the dark forces of Communism and thus serving the interests of Western nations. One may recall a notable James Bond movie titled The Living Daylights that celebrated the heroic exploits of the Mujahedeen, led by an Oxford-educated swashbuckling Afghan, who fought shoulder-to-shoulder with British allies against the Communist invaders. The movie Rambo III similarly portrayed the Mujahedeen in a highly favorable light. “Jihad” carried out at the instigation of Western governments at that time was, therefore, considered to be a noble activity. The Western media (and the movie industry) accordingly played along.

Not too long after the Russians were successfully expelled from Afghanistan, some from among the Mujahedeen of Afghanistan morphed into the Taliban, the Afghan militia who initiated a reign of austerity, puritanism, and intimidation in the 1990s. The Taliban furthermore promoted the idea of militancy under the rubric of jihad against all those who opposed their brutal policies. “Jihad” now began to be used in the Western media as the activity of Muslim religious fanatics opposed to democratic forms of government and intent on destroying Western civilization.

After the deadly September 11 attacks, the predominant understanding of jihad in certain quarters in the United States has become “terrorism.” As a result, the word “terrorist” is used almost reflexively in the Western media in connection with acts of violence perpetrated by actors from Muslim backgrounds. In contrast, there is a general reluctance to do so when the perpetrators are from non-Muslim backgrounds. When the Murrow Federal building in Oklahoma City was bombed in 1995, it was almost immediately assumed that it had all the hallmarks of “Islamic terrorism” and that the perpetrators were undeniably “Muslim terrorists.” When it was finally revealed that the violent act had actually been carried out by Timothy McVeigh who was from a Christian background and a member of the American Patriot Movement, the media hysteria subsided quite a bit and the word “terrorist” dropped out of media accounts of the event.

There is in fact differential media coverage of violent acts perpetrated by actors from Muslim backgrounds vis-à-vis those from non-Muslim backgrounds. Academic research has confirmed that the American media spends far more time covering militant acts carried out by perpetrators with Muslim-sounding names than those carried out by non-Muslim homegrown terrorists. A study conducted at Georgia State University established that terror attacks carried out by Muslims receive more than five times as much media coverage as those carried out by non-Muslims in the United States. Analysis of coverage of all terrorist attacks in the US between 2011 and 2015 led to the discovery that there was a 449 per cent increase in media attention when the perpetrator was a Muslim. Muslims committed just 12.4% of attacks during the period under consideration but received 41.4% of news coverage, according to the study. For example, the study found that the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, which was carried out by two Chechen Muslim attackers from Kyrgyzstan (in Central Asia) and killed three people, received almost 20 per cent of all coverage related to US terror attacks in the five-year period. In contrast, reporting of a 2012 massacre at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin that left six people dead and was carried out by Wade Michael Page—a Caucasian man from a Christian background—constituted just 3.8% of coverage.1

All the attacks analyzed in the study meet widely used definitions of terrorism, according to these researchers. Such findings clearly suggest that the media is making people disproportionately fearful of Muslims as terrorists. Over-reporting of terrorist attacks carried out by perpetrators from Muslim backgrounds contribute to popular perceptions that Muslims are inherently violent. The frequent framing of such violent acts as religiously motivated further contributes to the perception that Islamic teachings condone arbitrary acts of terror under the cover of jihad.

These perceptions are further reinforced by the movie industry. The writings of the late academic Jack Shaheen provide plenty of documentation that a considerable number of Hollywood movie producers, wittingly or unwittingly, continue to perpetuate the stereotype that Muslims, especially men, are violent and pose a danger to American society unless restrained by the non-Muslim Euro-American hero. The Muslim anti-hero is often portrayed as “brandishing an automatic weapon, crazy hate in his eyes, Allah on his lips,” as Shaheen remarked.2 Shaheen meticulously catalogued and examined several popular Hollywood action films and discovered that most of them conformed to such caricatures of Muslim men. They also tended to dehumanize Muslim women and children. The celluloid Arab, says Shaheen, is the “cultural ‘other.’”3

More recently, cyberspace has become the predominant site for the dissemination of such stereotypes and caricatures. There are a number of websites on the Internet whose sole function is to spread inaccurate and inflammatory information about Islam and Muslims in general. These websites are maintained by groups or individuals who are often described as “Islamophobes”—that is to say, they fear and hate Islam and Muslims. These groups and individuals have a vested interest in portraying Islam and Muslims in the worst possible light. Jihad in particular is depicted by them as an unrelenting violent religious obligation imposed upon Muslims that requires them to militarily wipe out or subjugate non-Muslims. Jihad understood in this way is then presented by these Islamophobic groups and individuals as the one activity that characterizes Muslims and renders them incapable of peacefully coexisting with other groups of people.4

Words and attitudes have consequences. Inflammatory rhetoric circulating on the internet and the popular media and increasingly adopted by government officials and members of Congress have led to a spike in violence against American Muslims in more recent times. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center which tracks extremism in the United States, the number of hate groups active in the United States rose for the second year in a row in 2016, propelled in part by the mainstreaming of far-right rhetoric by the Trump presidency, particularly on topics like immigration and Islam. The number of anti-Muslim groups grew the most, almost tripling to 101 in 2016 from 34 in 2015. There were a total of 917 hate groups operating in the United States in 2016, an increase from 892 in 2015 and 784 in 2014, the center said in its annual report. In the first 10 days after Trump’s election, the center said, it documented 867 bias incidents, including more than 300 that targeted immigrants or Muslims.5

The obvious way to undermine the organized, well-heeled campaigns of disinformation spearheaded by anti-Islamic groups in the US is to provide well-researched, and well-documented information in its stead, and make such information as accessible as possible to a wide audience. In the United States, American Muslim civil rights and advocacy groups are at the forefront of efforts to push back against Islamophobia and to allow Muslims to represent themselves in all their diversity. Among such organizations are the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR); the Muslim Public Action Committee (MPAC), the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), and the Islamic Council of North America (ICNA), which regularly hold conferences, workshops, and information sessions to challenge Islamophobia; provide representation for Muslim citizens in the political and civil spheres; and advocate for the civil and human rights of American Muslims when they are violated in many ways.

There are also responsible, ethical newspaper journalists and television reporters who go the extra mile to represent Muslims and their beliefs in a fair and nuanced manner. These journalists avoid reductiveness in their reporting and treat Muslims as they would any other religious and/or ethnic group – with a regard for the complexity and depth of their identities, for the multiple interpretations of their religious tradition, and for the challenges they face, alongside many other groups of people, in the twenty-first century in a rapidly-changing, globalizing world. Context and the framing of news are important—conscientious journalists who excel in their jobs pay attention to both, even when laboring under strict deadlines.

We in the academy also have an important role to play—as educators, mentors, and advisors to our students who frequently come into our classrooms with open minds and an eagerness to learn through critical inquiry and engagement. We can train and are training the next generation of scholars, policy makers, politicians, journalists, social activists, and responsible citizens to develop good habits of critical reading, listening, and reflection. Such habits will help them navigate the barrage of information we are all confronted with on a daily basis and help them unearth facts as opposed to manufactured news. You know you are making headway when students learn to thoughtfully analyze and deconstruct what they hear and read in less respectable media outlets and/or on the Internet. I was touched to receive this feedback recently from one of my students at Indiana University:

If more people, especially those who don’t believe the negative things said but don’t know enough to make a difference, made an effort to learn about Islam, then I think things might be different. Maybe the bigoted voices wouldn’t sound so loud, and maybe the stereotypes would be referred to less. If people made an effort to understand, rather than just repeat the same negative things that they hear, then maybe the world would be a less hateful place.

As the largest professional organization for religious studies scholars in the world today, the American Academy of Religion (AAR) plays a critical role in the gathering and dissemination of sound academic research and nuanced information about the practice and influence of religion in the public sphere. The Committee for the Public Understanding of Religion plays a leading role in this regard under the aegis of AAR. Among the most important services it has rendered to the public is the recognition of the work of conscientious journalists who take religion seriously and who document—without cheap sensationalism—the way it continues to impact who we are as human beings and the relations we forge with another. As I rotate off the committee this year, I can look back with pride and satisfaction at how much CPUR has accomplished to date. But so much more still needs to be done – this is, of course, our ongoing struggle (or jihad) for the foreseeable future.

Editor's Note: Attendees of the AAR Annual Meeting are invited to attend the virtual panel, "Developing Religious Literacy in College and University Classrooms," hosted by the Committee on the Public Understanding of Religion. Add the session by searching its title or session ID, AV22-202, in the conference web planner.


1 Erin M. Kearns, Allison Betus, and Anthony Lemieux, “Why Do some Terrorist Attacks Receive More Media Attention Than Others?” Available at: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2928138

2 Jack J. Shaheen, “Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People,” the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 588 (2003): 171–193; at 172.

3 Ibid. For more details, see the monograph-length version Reel Bad Arabs, How Hollywood Vilifies a People (Northampton, MA: Olive Branch, 2012).

4 A detailed account of prominent Islamophobes and Islamophobic organizations is provided by the Center for American Progress in their 2011 report “Fear, Inc.: The Roots of the Islamophobic Industry in America;” also available at their website (https:// www.americanprogress.org).

5 “Hate Groups Increase for Second Consecutive Year as Trump Electrifies Radical Right,” Southern Poverty Law Center, Available at: https://www.splcenter.org/news/2017/02/15/hate-groups-increase-second-consecutive-year-trump-electrifies-radical-right

Asma Afsaruddin is professor of Islamic Studies and adjunct professor of religious studies and gender studies at Indiana University, Bloomington. She is the author or editor of eight books, including her award-winning Striving in the Path of God: Jihad and Martyrdom in Islamic Thought (Oxford University Press, 2013) and her forthcoming Jihad: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, 2022).  Her research has been supported by the Carnegie Corporation and the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.